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Stop Our Children From Dying

Stop Our Children From Dying

“Help stop our children from dying”. That’s the plea from The Family Help Trust, a Christchurch based support service working with high-risk children and their families.

The Trust is commenting after results of a survey showed New Zealand has the third highest rate of child abuse deaths among 26 OECD countries.

FHT Chairperson, Sally Thompson, is surprised by the results but says she always believed New Zealand could do a better job of protecting children from child abuse and the high number of deaths which result.

“Every week we seem to hear of another tragedy. One death is one too many and what is most upsetting and frustrating is, at risk children in the Family Help Trust programmes appear to be safer than those in other programmes in New Zealand. We are doing something right for the “at risk” children; we are the fence at the top of the cliff, not the ambulance at the bottom, and prevention is the key,” says Sally Thompson.

It’s not a new idea - the Roper Report in the late 1980’s and more recent research* has identified that early childhood intervention is one of the keys to lowering New Zealand’s rates of crime and childhood abuse.

Family Help Trust is still awaiting the release of the Howse report on the deaths of Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson, which was due out almost two months ago. The Trust believes the report is still with Howse and his lawyers.

“We welcome the report into the Howse killings. I am sure they would not have completed a report if there were not going to be suggestions about how to help stop this kind of tragic incident from happening again. The child deaths related to home violence and abuse in this country, indeed anywhere is unacceptable; we must stop our children from dying.”

Without any central government funding, the Family Help Trust team works with “high risk” children and their families addressing multiple problems such as a history of violence, drugs and crime. Sally Thompson says these families and their children have few options for assistance that is not limited by time constraints, and therefore other support agencies may not be as effective as it could be.

Most of the Family Help Trust families have already been through the “system” or been in it for years. For most of them, the Trust is their last chance.

“Early intervention is the key to the success of our work, and the amazing outcomes we have seen over the years in our families. As a result of close and ongoing support, we help parents by providing them with options and help to make positive and informed choices for their children and themselves. We teach responsibility and accountability, and services continue until the youngest child in the family starts school, which can mean we work with a family for up to 5 years. That’s something the state social service just can’t offer at the moment,” says Mrs. Thompson.

One of the results of staying with a family unit for up to five years is the development of strong and effective relationships between the social workers and the families. Family Help Trust says there is evidence that these unique, long term, homebased approaches make a positive difference.

“The New Zealand Roper Report (1987) is only one of a number of research documents which support what we and other organisations do; reducing the risk of crime, violence and other social problems developing further in the family unit. American Criminologist Dr Ronald Huff also offers compelling evidence,” says Sally Thompson. Dr Huff says, “Given that youth violence is often related to early aggression, prevention programs should target the family context to prevent the development of early childhood aggression,” and this is what Family Help Trust does. The families are referred by the prison and corrections service and other appropriate community agencies, for example, pregnant women are referred by GP’s and Midwives.

Sally Thompson says it is disappointing that despite the evidence of the success of early prevention programmes and a large budget surplus earlier this year, the Government has yet to recognise the value and success of what organisations like Family Help Trust can do to help our children from, and fund them accordingly.

“No-one can be one hundred per cent sure that if these child killers and their families had been a part of a preventative programme such as ours, these children would still be alive. But we the obvious risks are reduced by offering an early intervention preventative service,” she says.

An independent formal evaluation is soon to be completed and that will provide Family Help Trust with important data related to the long-term effects of their work. Final results will be released in another few weeks.

* Dr C. Ronald Huff is Dean of the School of Social Ecology and professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society. He has also taught at Ohio State University (where he directed the School of Public Policy and Management and the Criminal Justice Research Center), Purdue University, and the University of Hawaii.

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